Push continues for ethics reform at state level

Noel Lyn Smith

FARMINGTON – Local state representatives and senators agree on the need for ethics reform but their approach for establishing a system varies.

Discussion about ethics reform occurred during the legislative session with focus on a bill proposed by Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque. The bill called for voters to consider a constitutional amendment to establish an independent ethics commission. The debate was fueled by a study indicating that such a commission could help counter the state's reputation for allowing pay-to-play politics, which would help attract new businesses.

The bill cleared the state House of Representatives but Dines pulled his sponsorship on Wednesday after the Senates Rules Committee proposed a number of amendments, which he said would have weakened the proposal.

The legislation proposed that the commission have the authority to initiate, receive and investigate complaints of alleged violations by elected and nonelected officials.

Under the bill, as originally written, the commission would have been able to conduct public hearings if the evidence is "clear and convincing," and it would have had the authority to make a formal judgment and impose civil penalties or sanctions.

Dines said on Friday the amendments proposed by the Senate Rules Committee would have made the bill a “toothless tiger.”

When asked if he would consider sponsoring another bill that calls for ethics reform, he said, "Oh, absolutely. It's needed."

Dines said he is looking at proposing a similar bill for the next legislative session and will work on gathering support from representatives and senators during the interim.

Rep. James R.J. Strickler

Reps. James Strickler, R-Farmington, and Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, agree ethics reform needs to happen, but they remain concerned about how future bills would address the issue.

They were among 10 representatives who voted against the bill when it went before the House on Feb. 9.

On Friday, Strickler said he did not agree with Dines' bill because it proposed having nine commissioners, and the commission would employ an executive director. The state's current economic situation would make it impossible to fund those positions, he said.

“I think there’s other ways to get the results,” Strickler said.

Rep. Rod Montoya

Montoya said he voted against the bill because, while it granted the commission the power to dismiss frivolous complaints, those complaints would then be made public without a hearing being held or a reason listed for the dismissal, possibly tainting the accused party. That could open doors for individuals to file complaints that have no merit in order to hurt candidates during an election, he said.

Montoya said he talked to Dines about working together to develop an ethics reform bill that addresses the concerns raised during the session.

Reps. Paul Bandy, R-Aztec, and Sharon Clahchischilliage, R-Kirtland, did not respond to calls for comment.

Bandy was among the 50 representatives who voted in favor of the bill while Clahchischilliage was excused that day. During an interview this week, she said she would have voted in favor of the bill.

Sen. William E. Sharer

Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, said one of his concerns was the level of transparency authorized by the bill. He said once a complaint was levied, the accused party would bear the burden of establishing his or her innocence — and the entire case would be addressed in public.

Sharer added the state already has systems in place to address allegations of wrongdoing through the Secretary of State's Office or by the attorney general.

Sen. Steven Neville

Sen. Steve Neville, R-Aztec, said the Interim Legislative Ethics Committee, of which he is a member, is composed of senators and representatives who review complaints filed against lawmakers.

However, the committee does not handle complaints filed against nonelected officials or employees, and 75 percent of complaints are dismissed, Neville said.

The committee also does not have the authority to initiate investigations, and disciplinary actions are limited to censure and reprimand, he said, although it can make a recommendation for removal from office.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.